Roman Protasevich doesn’t appear as if much of a threat to Europe’s last dictator. A fresh-faced 26-year-old, he has never been elected to position nor has he stood as a candidate. What this blogger and co-recipient of the ecu parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of thought has done, however, is considered even as dangerous by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. He has helped to make sure that the planet knows about the pro-democracy movement in Belarus.
The Belarusian journalist and activist was on his way back home to Lithuania when his Ryanair flight was diverted from its route on the pretext of a security alert and “escorted” to Minsk airport by military aircraft. it had been clear that Protasevich was the target of this operation when police arrested him along side his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a student , before allowing the flight to resume.
Nexta, the channel on the social media platform Telegram that Protasevich co-founded and formerly edited, has become one among the most tools within the Belarusian resistance movement that developed since last summer’s disputed presidential elections during which Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory. Pro-democracy campaigners use the channel to tell supporters of the small print of protests also on publicise reports and pictures of brutal attacks on protesters by the safety services.
Within Belarus, the government’s control of digital also as traditional media is tightening relentlessly. Last week Minsk blocked the independent news website tut.by, the country’s hottest non-state media outlet. On Monday further restrictions on journalists were announced, including a ban on the live coverage of unsanctioned protests and on organising or participating in “mass events” that they report on.
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The fact that Nexta has its offices in Poland means Minsk has thus far been unable to shut it down. But as Protasevich discovered on Sunday, Lukashenko’s regime is willing to interrupt international agreements so as to catch, punish and silence those that defy him. There are real questions on the security of leading Belarusian opposition figures living in exile – especially Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the lady widely considered the important winner of the August 2020 presidential election.
Read more: Belarus: opposition pressure continues inside and out of doors the country – will it work?
One of her strategies is to satisfy with world leaders so as to stay the pro-democracy movement on the international agenda and press for further measures against Lukashenko. The arrest of Protasevich makes it clear that travel, even between democratic countries, poses considerable risks for all Belarusian opposition figures. the way of his detention is a stark warning that there's no safe refuge for Lukashenko’s opponents.
When it had been clear that the Ryanair flight was getting to land in Belarus, Protasevich reportedly turned to a fellow passenger and remarked that this is able to end in his execution. He wasn't exaggerating. His name has been placed on an inventory of terrorists by the state’s security forces, and therefore the penalty for terrorist offences in Belarus is death.
Belarusian prison may be a dangerous place for anyone arrested for political crimes, no matter the official charges. Protesters who have hung out in detention are subjected to severe physical abuse including torture and rape. Others die in suspicious circumstances.
Just last week, Vitold Ashurak, a member of the opposition party Belarusian alliance , is reported to possess suffered a fatal attack while serving a five-year prison sentence for participating in protests.
Worrying reports of Protasevich’s condition began to surface only a matter of hours after his detention. The journalist’s mother received messages that her son had been hospitalised thanks to heart problems. His medical record lent these messages some credibility.
By Monday evening, however, a brief video of Protasevich surfaced on a pro-regime Telegram channel. Looking tense and sporting what seems like bruising on his face, the journalist denied any ill-treatment or health problems and claimed to be cooperating with the authorities, including confessing to organising “mass riots” in Minsk.
Tikhanovskaya also featured during a “hostage-type” video making a similarly unconvincing confession shortly before she fled from Belarus in August 2020. She later confirmed that her performance had been coerced, using threats to her family.
Attention has understandably turned to the measures that the EU et al. might take against Lukashenko, but it's also important to specialise in what this latest episode reveals about politics in Belarus.
While it's going to appear that Lukashenko holds all the cards, the lengths that the regime is willing to travel so as to attack its critics may be a sign of fragility instead of strength. A politician who is fully on top of things of society doesn't got to arrest citizens for wearing the incorrect colour socks, including hijack an aircraft to kidnap a young blogger. The regime’s insistence on stamping out every manifestation of dissent, regardless of how minor, is merely matched by the determination and resilience of ordinary people that still mock and defy it.
Although repression and violence have thus far enabled Lukashenko to hold close power, cracks are reportedly emerging within the safety forces that are his ultimate tool against opposition. it's becoming increasingly clear that this regime has little left to supply that its constituents find appealing.
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